75 pivotal public policies: the Open University

Imagine a university for all, helping to build a more competitive economy while also promoting equality of opportunity and social mobility and life-long learning.

Britain’s launch of the Open University in 1969 was a big, visionary step in that direction.

Right up until the latter part of the 20th Century, a university education was largely for the privileged. But Michael Young, a British sociologist who notably coined the phrase “meritocracy,” saw an opportunity to harness television and radio to deliver higher education affordable to people from all walks of life, regardless of their background or circumstances.


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Planning began in 1965, led by government Education Secretary Jennie Lee, and the new university received legislative approval in 1969, the final year of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s first term; its first students started their studies in 1971. Carrying out teaching and research in 157 countries, the Open University claims to be “the leading university for flexible, innovative teaching and research in the UK and 157 nations worldwide”.

Studying largely from home on a part-time basis, often with the option of short residential courses at the university’s Milton Keynes campus, more than 2m students have received an education that would otherwise have been denied them at campus-based universities. Open University alumni include former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Sir David Attenborough, physicist Brian Cox, and Tim Berners-Lee, the architect of the World Wide Web.

The internet has further accelerated what has been a dramatic expansion of higher education around the world in the half-century since the Open University began—including through new dedicated online platforms for university courses, such as Coursera and Ed-X.

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